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The road to 2021: The many dimensions of the 2D team

December 22, 2020 in Technology | 8 min. read
Dev Diary - Road to 2021
Dev Diary - Road to 2021
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We recently shared our roadmap plans for 2021. Now we invite you inside Unity to meet some of the teams working towards these goals. In this third post of the series, we introduce you to the 2D team.

Our Unity 2021 roadmap explains some of our focus areas for next year. We’re committed to updating production-ready features and delivering key new features based on what you have told us you’re missing from Unity. But we’re equally determined to improve workflows and your overall quality of life.

This post is the third of a series that aims to give you a glimpse behind the scenes. Today we are meeting with Paul Tham, who leads the team behind 2D and tools, and Rus Scammell, the Product Manager of 2D.

A team of wide-ranging backgrounds

The dedicated 2D team provides creators of 2D experiences in Unity with a feature set that covers foundations, world-building, animation, graphics and physics in 2D (including tools like Sprite Renderer, 2D Tilemap Editor, 2D Lights). The core team today is 15 people strong, including software engineers, software quality engineers, a designer, a technical writer and a product manager, but several other individuals contribute their expertise to evolving 2D.

“It’s a team built for multifunctional conversations,” says Rus.

“The team is also diverse. They are Singaporean, American, Swedish, British, Indian, Malaysian, and Chinese. We share our cultures with each other and it makes our lunchtime discussions very lively,” adds Paul.

Paul and Rus began their careers developing games together for the PlayStation 2. Paul later met some of the other current team members at Ubisoft. The team consists of passionate game developers involved in various areas of game production and tool development in support of both indie and large-scale projects.

Connecting with 2D users

The team likes to engage with users (in the 2D forum and Beta forum) and keep a close eye on the conversation happening on Twitter, where, for example they connected with Odd Bug Studio, which was using 2D lights in its upcoming title, Tails of Iron.

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“At the community level,” says Rus, “we make announcements when a prerelease feature is available so that creators can try it out and give us their feedback. We are also doing more to make sure that performance is tested on a range of mobile devices. At a strategic level, our features are really driven by users.” 

The team closely observes how studios are using the 2D tools and listens to their feedback. This was the case with B2tGame during the making of the Lost Crypt and Glu Mobile for the development of Isometric Tilemaps.

When users report problems or dissatisfaction or suggest solutions or ideas, the cross-functional team strives to understand what the user is ultimately trying to build. By examining a user’s problem space, the team can determine if there’s a larger need for a solution. For example, if a user reports “pixel art” as a problem space, the team evaluates common workflows and desired outcomes and makes sure that the resulting solution (features and resources), in this case the 2D Pixel Perfect package, can support those outcomes.

“Design has also become a critical part of how a feature comes together,” states Rus, “and it is championed by a dedicated design team that spans the organization.” The team has a new UX Designer who frequently connects with the community in the forum to assess the user experience.

Ongoing priorities in 2021: UX and performance

While 2D features will remain familiar for creators who use them in their current workflows, 2D tools are evolving along with the underlying technology and will benefit from overall improvements. 

In Unity 2020.2 the team offered a more intuitive experience for new users. Working on 2D projects got faster with streamlined menus and better default assets. The team plans to keep integrating 2D menus and settings consistently across the Editor for future releases of Unity.

In 2020, Unity established performance as a major area of focus, which will be evident in Unity 2021. The 2D team is carrying that forward, “to improve the performance of 2D projects made with Unity and streamline the workflows for creators of 2D games,” Rus says.

Two current focus areas for the 2D team are 2D Animation with Sprite Swap workflows and 2D graphics.

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Rus and Eduardo (Product Marketing, 2D) shared some productivity and performance tips in a recent Unite Now session.

Enabling large projects with 2D Animation

2D Animation received improvements such as Burst compatibility in Unity 2020.1, and integrated 2D Inverse Kinematics (IK) in Unity 2020.2.

For Unity 2021, the team has been hard at work on 2D Animation, refining the Sprite Swap workflows and making it easier to share animation clips across multiple characters.

The team’s current mission, according to Paul, is to enable workflows for large projects. “If you have characters with many parts or games with lots of downloadable content (DLC), the characters should be able to share rigs, animations and parts.”

Thanks to feedback from studios that are already using the new features, the team is further refining the user experience (UX). With these improvements, technical animators can set up the rig, a mannequin or reference so that a standard asset can be shared across the team. Then artists can make variants of the reference skeleton and animators can animate them.

These inherited skeletons also help ensure that variants with missing parts or additional parts (like a tail or wings) aren’t problematic – they just work. The user needs to remove unneeded Sprites or add new Sprites or animated parts as child GameObjects of a bone in accordance with the typical Unity workflow for creating variants, but can also keep the flow of 2D Animation for animated parts.

The aim is to ensure that the Sprite Swap workflow is part of the general Sprite workflow, not just for skinning within the Sprite editor for 2D Animation. We also want to make sure that 2D is present alongside 3D across various areas of the Editor. This is consistent with Unity’s broader vision of improved quality of life for all of our users, including 2D developers.

The team anticipates that these changes and other minor updates will be available to try in the Unity 2021 cycle.

The new UX moves the sprite swapping tooling to the Inspector view.

Cross-functional collaboration is an integral part of Unity

Unity is in constant evolution and 2D tooling can benefit from new technology available. Paul describes how they work with other teams:

“We are a big consumer of internal tech such as Burst and SRP. Whenever something is released internally, we will take the tech and adapt one of our features to it. By prototyping it on one feature, we will have a fairly clear idea if the new tech is a good fit for 2D. After a few rounds of testing and prototyping, we will put it on the internal roadmap.”

One example of that collaboration is the Burst performance improvements in 2D Animation in Unity 2020.1, for challenging scenarios like animating a large number of skinned vertices. Another example is the boost for Sprite Shape mesh calculations, which is especially beneficial at runtime. The team also worked with the Cinemachine team to enable compatibility with 2D Pixel Perfect and the graphics team to refine the 2D Renderer.

You can learn about 2D Animation with Burst performance in this <a href="https://youtu.be/DCAH1rlwAr4?t=767" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">session</a>.

Developing the 2D Renderer for the new graphics pipeline

The team’s goal for 2021 is to make 2D graphics perform faster in the Universal Render Pipeline. They are also striving to improve the user experience for lights and shadows in 2D.

The Universal Render Pipeline (URP) will eventually become the Unity default renderer, and that includes the 2D renderer being the default renderer for 2D projects. The team is working very hard on optimizing light render textures. They are paying close attention to frame rate, memory bandwidth, draw calls and general memory usage with 2D Lights.

According to Paul, the work consists of low-level optimization code. “We are working closely with the team behind URP, using the same code base and review process, to ensure the renderer meets the needs of 2D projects.”

As part of the 2D Renderer work, the team is also further improving the rendering pipeline of Secondary Textures (normal and mask maps for 2D Lights).

Unity’s performance is continually benchmarked across a wide range of devices. To test the performance of all the 2D features combined in a single scene, the team used Lost Crypt, among other projects and measures.

Overall improvements include enhancements to the user experience (UX) and making features easier to access, for example, managing texture size from the Inspector window in the 2021 cycle.

Rus explains that they look at the desired outcomes holistically. “We do that by talking with studios and learning how they use the tools during production.”

Development of the 2D Renderer used the Lost Crypt project as a benchmark.

Getting ready for the 2021 cycle

The team is hard at work to support the maturation of URP in 2021. The 2D Renderer is set to power the next generation of 2D graphics and workflow improvements that will keep enabling anyone – from artists to game designers – to animate characters, design levels or create great visuals directly in the Editor. We are looking forward to sharing the latest developments with you next year that will make sure Unity remains the best solution for your 2D project, regardless what platform you’re building for.

Want another peek behind the scenes?

This is the third episode of the dev diaries introducing you to some of the people working on future versions of Unity. If you missed them, you can check out the first two installments for some insight into what’s driving our Performance Optimization and Quality of Life teams into 2021.

Tell us in the comments below if you would like us to cover any specific teams and feature areas in future blog posts.

December 22, 2020 in Technology | 8 min. read
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